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Progressive Faith vs. the Illusion of Control

by Fred Plumer

Fred Plumer is the pastor of the Irvine (California) United Church of Christ and a member of The Center for Progressive Christianity's Advisory Committee. The following appeared as an undated article in the website of the Center for Progressive Christianity. Information and resources from the Center for Progressive Christianity are available at www.tcpc.org.


I have never thought of the progressive church as a response to the religious right or to the conservative or the creedal or orthodox church. From my earliest seminary days, I have always assumed that the progressive church was a response to Godís truth as revealed in Jesus and other enlightened teachers and prophets. It is a response to the slow unveiling of the secrets of the universe that continue to expand our understanding of this awesome and often unfathomable creation. It is a response to the ongoing scholarship that has exploded our understanding of biblical times, the historical Jesus and the development of religions in general. I have always assumed that the progressive church was both a response to and a search for truth. In other words a progressive church is based on an acceptance of a progressive faith.

Progress by definition means "to move forward". Obviously this implies change, transition or the need to revise our thinking. Progress always means change, and change is seldom easy, especially when we are dealing with subjective and even sacred issues in our lives.

The truth of the matter is that the Christian movement, or what we now call the church, was always progressive. Jesus and his followers were change agents and that frankly, is what got them all into trouble. According to Mark, Jesus said, "The Sabbath law was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath law," as he intentionally broke the sacred Sabbath laws of his religion. It is hard for us to understand how jarring that would have been to people of his time. You can get some idea, however, if you go to Israel today and break a Sabbath law. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, he ate with the so-called unclean, and he confronted the powers and principalities of his culture as well as his religion. He demanded change in the religious belief system of his people if it was unjust or oppressive to the outcasts or to the marginalized people.

It is hard for me to understand how good biblical fundamentalists miss this point. I find it mildly humorous for example, when good Christians tell me how bad they feel about gays and lesbians but, alas, what can they do? They always say sadly, "You know what scripture says." Well, I will tell you what scripture tells me. When some law, whether from Moses or from some Leviticus priest, is unjust or oppressive to a minority, it has to be ignored or changed. That is what Jesus did, and he put his life on the line for it. And that is what the church that follows Jesus of Nazareth must do. I see no other way to read it. But whenever we confront the status quo of anything, we are asking for trouble; and, if the differences are big enough, the consequences can be life-threatening.

Even Paul was by my definition progressive in his theology for his time. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul takes the position that as Christians we are no longer slaves to the law but are slaves to love, a startling and progressive statement for a Jew.

The early church was known for its vast variety of interpretations of the Jesus events, some of which are actually reflected in our gospels today. Throughout history numerous, well-known progressive theologians and scholars, people of much faith, have had perspectives of the Christian faith that are very different from those held by the normative Christian church. Unfortunately, most of them were deemed heretics and were imprisoned, killed, or forced to recant. Sadly, their scholarship and writings were often hidden or destroyed. Bishop Arius in the 3rd century, Meister Eckhart in the 14th century and D.F. Strauss in the 19th century are just a few of dozens.

Today, we face the same challenge that confronted those who have gone before us. What do we consider belief, knowledge and faith?

Theologian Karl Rahner once wrote, "...what is called knowledge in everyday parlance, is only a small island in a vast sea that has not been traveled... Hence the existential question for the knower is this: Which does he love more, the small island of his so-called knowledge or the sea of infinite mystery?

Karl Rahner wrote this long before quantum physics, the discovery of black holes, the string theory and the most recent realization that some 90% of the universe seems to be in dimensions that we can never see.

The question becomes then, do we love the small island of knowledge more or do we care to sail the "sea of infinite mystery"? It is far easier and certainly more comfortable to stay on the small island of knowledge and be an expert in a familiar paradigm than it is to venture out into the unknown.

Maybe that is why the well known theologian Karl Barth once wrote, "Theology means taking rational trouble over mystery."

I. I. Mitroff and W. Bennis, two sociologists, wrote a book in 1989 called The Unreality Industry. They suggest that the "fundamental dialectic of our times is between reality and unreality, especially now that we have power to influence and create both." The reason we are creating "substitute realities", they argue, is that the world has become so complex that "no one person or institution can fully understand or control it."

"If humans cannot control the realities with which they are faced, then they will invent unrealities over which they can maintain the illusion of control." The question is, they write, do we have the courage to face directly and honestly the complex realities we are capable of creating and discovering or will we turn away from reality and invest our energy increasingly in the denial of reality? I wonder how might the words of these two scholars apply to religions of our day? Does it have anything to do with what has been called the fundamentalist movement in world religions today? Does it have anything to do with religion in this country today?

A progressive faith is one that is willing to challenge the assumptions and to test the paradigm under which we are operating. It is not afraid to ask hard questions and to admit to doubt. My own experience has demonstrated for me that if I ask God or the Ultimate Spirit a question, I may not get the answer but I will be led in a direction where the answer becomes apparent. It is usually my anxiety from worrying about not having an answer to an important question that keeps me from discovering that if I had relaxed, I already had the answer.

As Bennis and Mitroff argue, most of us are uncomfortable with unknowns and mysteries so we create unrealities to fill in the blanks. We want to feel we are on solid footing. We not only want to know where the path is but where it leads as well.

I think that is one reason people get so panicked over earthquakes. It seems interesting that over the centuries earthquakes have done far less damage or caused far less death than hurricanes, floods, or tornadoes. I have spent most of my life in California, and I cannot tell you how many times I have heard, "Oh how can you live out in California with those earthquakes?" Hurricanes and tornadoes come from the sky and floods from the water. But earthquakes demonstrate that what we thought was the one solid thing in our lives, the ground upon which we stand, is not so solid after all. The earth is not only vulnerable to outside forces, but it is vulnerable in itself.

Today in our multi-cultural world, in our interdependent economy, in an era with black holes, quantum physics, string theories and quarks, when we are told there is no time or space, we can feel very vulnerable. We have a hard time identifying a solid footing let alone a lighted path. It is understandable that people want to simplify their thinking. A progressive religion, like a progressive faith, is not an easy path because it can question the very ground upon which we thought we were walking.

We recently had a President, who convinced a lot of people that the fifties were the golden era, somewhere to which we ought to return. Indeed it was "golden" if you were white, a man, and had a good education. But there were a whole lot of other people who did not experience the fifties as a particularly good time, and certainly not as golden. The womenís liberation and civil rights movements were responses to their frustration and suffering. Often we find ourselves yearning for the good old days when the good old days are really a myth.

The point is that it is always easier not to question or doubt. It is usually easier to ignore the truth if it requires that we change. It will often be easier to stay in the same place.

Progressive faith is like learning to ski down a slippery slope. Some of us just do not like that sense of movement under our feet no matter how much fun others seem to be having. We are not comfortable, even frightened, with the pull of gravity down a slope because we feel like we have little or no control. But people who have become proficient skiers will tell you that with practice, skiers gain control by leaning forward into the tips of their skis, actually releasing to the pull gravity. This movement is opposed to everything that seems natural to most people. Most of us would rather sit back on our skis and drag our buttocks on the ground for control. Could it be that the mystery of God is like the pull of gravity encouraging us to lean into the tips of our skis, letting the pull of the mystery lead us into an incredible journey?

It is an exciting time to be alive. I believe that if we follow Jesusí example and let go of the need for dogma or inflexible belief systems, and if we learn to move with the flow of the spirit, we just might have the dynamic experience of being launched into the "sea of infinite mystery".

Progressive faith may be scary, but it will always be exciting.

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